The Startup Design Partner Program

A Key to ‘Go to Market’ Success

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“I really like your product, but I don’t need for it right now. I suggest you talk to Bill in Sales. He might be interested.”

I put down the phone in shock. How could this be? Jill, someone I worked with for years before I launched my startup, validated our product before we began operations. She even spoke to our investors. I remember her saying that we were developing a “must-have” product that she would use every day. Why doesn’t she want it now? What happened?

What happened is you hit a ‘false positive,’ which confuses personal excitement with a real need or desire to buy your product.

Why Does This Happen?

False positives happened for a variety of reasons. Most people like to be helpful and giving positive feedback is seen as one way to do that. Also, people generally don’t like delivering bad news, so they sugarcoat their real feelings. And since you are hoping for positive news, you misinterpret that positive feedback; it’s what psychologists call the confirmation bias, you hear what you want to hear. Lastly, people often don’t understand that when you want feedback you are asking for commitment, so they don’t invest too much thought before responding. There are surely more reasons, but it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is you have a big problem. Nobody wants your product. Now that you recruited a sales manager, you are burning cash faster than ever. What do you tell your employees who were led to expect instant success? What do you tell your investors? What do you do next? The key to avoiding this situation is getting it right before you move too far ahead.

Get It Right the First Time

The Lean Startup is a methodology that young companies can use to get to market with a product that people want. Like agile development, it is predicated on working in iterative cycles, each one intended to validate something before moving on to the next phase. The idea is that if you see a problem, you only have to redo the last step, not start from scratch.

The Lean Startup concept is quite simple, the challenge is doing it right. A book entitled The Lean Startup popularized the method; it outlines execution steps, but it is hard to implement as described in the book. Also, the book focuses exclusively on product development and building the right product. Of course, building the right product is critical, but a successful company needs more; a product is only one of the necessary components of a successful company. Your company also needs correct positioning, powerful messaging, the appropriate sales channels, and acceptable pricing as well.

So, a successful go to market program requires feedback on more than just product features; it requires feedback on a host of factors during its first year of operations. And each of these feedback loops should be iterated just like the product discussions. And it all starts with Design Partners.

Design Partners Are the Key

Design partners are prospective customers (people or organizations) who sign up work with your company from inception through the first product delivery. These folks commit to providing feedback on a range of questions. It is important to formalize the design partner process so that expectations with real customers are crystal clear. While you are not signing a contract, it is important to set expectations early on, so neither side is disappointed down the road.

A design partner generally commits to participate in a one-hour session each month during which they will provide feedback on some aspect of the company. These are best performed in person if possible, it is important to gauge body language and it is a great opportunity to build rapport with the customer. In consideration for their time, you should offer to incorporate feedback into the product (that they desperately need) and to offer preferential pricing when the product is shipped. These sessions should be peppered in between the product sessions and typically include the following:

1. An initial pitch –present your concept and solicit a commitment from the prospective customer

2. Completion of a ‘pain sheet’ — walk the customer through a series of questions to flesh out their pain and a set of features that would ideally solve their problem. The pain sheet is a critical stage in understanding customer needs. Email me if you would like to get a sample pain sheet template you can use.

3. User experience (UX) simulations — get feedback on the customer experience. A product mockup is a starting point; as you progress, these sessions should become increasingly more detailed.

4. Competitive analysis — understand how your solution stacks up with alternative ways to solve the pain. This might be competitive products, but it could also include different business processes, manual operations, etc.

5. Sales model and pricing model– understand how your customer would buy your product

6. Sales presentation — get feedback on the salient points of the sales argument

7. Return on investment (ROI) or total cost of ownership (TOC) analyses — understand how your customer would cost-justify buying your product

8. Customer experience interviews (after the product has been delivered) — understand what the customer likes (and doesn’t like) about your product. If done properly, these can be parlayed into customer references for use in sales opportunities

You should be working with at least 3 to 5 partners; some may fall off during the year as business changes; for example, you champion may leave their company, the organization may be bought out, or a new manager might put the kibosh on participation. A rule of thumb says converting 60% of your design partners to paying customers is considered a big success.

There is no sure recipe for success, but if you work according to this structured and iterative process, you increase you chances for success manyfold… Besides, it sure beats telling your investors that you need to pivot after you have burned through 18 months of cash.

Good luck.

Accomplished technology product and marketing expert, information overload researcher, award-winning technology and business writer.

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